4 steps to get started as a more compassionate leader


When we interviewed leaders and asked if they believe compassion is important in leadership, we were surprised to hear a resounding yes. This was difficult to believe at first. If everyone thought it was important, how come we didn’t see or hear more examples of compassionate leadership? When we spoke with Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur and Stanford professor who helped bring about the Lean Startup movement, we got our answer. He said compassion is important, but the problem is that in the face of competition and survival, he and most leaders struggle to balance compassion with organizational priorities. “We need examples, best practices, and heuristics for what it looks like in action,” he said. He’s not alone. In a survey of over 1,000 leaders from 800 organizations, 91% said that compassion is necessary for leadership, but 80% said they don’t know how to lead with compassion (source).

And, so, this is where we got started. While we’re born with an innate sense of compassion for our family and friends, studies show that we need to cultivate compassion in order to extend it to others. This requires in-depth training and practice over time, which we provide to leaders through our programs. There are, however, some simple steps that you can use to get started right away. But first, compassion requires two preconditions: the motivation to use it and knowing when it can be applied effectively.

Why use compassion?

One of the best motivators for using compassion in leadership is knowing that it helps us to be more effective and improve collaboration within our organization. Studies have shown that leaders who are compassionate gain more followers, appear stronger, are better able to retain talent, and improve organizational performance (source). Compassion in leadership means understanding where people are coming from, feeling for them in a genuine way, and acting to help them be successful. When compassion is defined this way, 90% of leaders we surveyed said this is what it looked like when they were leading at their best. To be sure, if you’re playing a short game, using compassion isn’t the optimal way to go — it might be easier to churn through customers and employees. However, if you’re looking to grow an organization over the long run, compassion is necessary to best serve and keep your customers and employees.

When is compassion effective?

We often think of using compassion in the face of suffering — when employee is having a hard time or perhaps during a round of layoffs. While compassion is indeed useful and necessary in these situations, it is also impactful and necessary in major decision-making and everyday actions. If compassion is about truly understanding where someone is coming from and helping them to be successful, it can be applied in many different ways. For example, major decisions such as “How do we reduce our operational costs next year?” can involve making important trade offs. Having the ability to truly understand the perspectives of our team members, especially from those departments that might be getting budget cuts, and then responding in a way that keeps up morale and forward momentum requires compassion. Compassion can also be crucial in common daily interactions such as “Should I spend time to hear someone out right now or try to make the next meeting on time?” (we’ll go into this example later on).

Compassion is effective whenever we’re making decisions that impact others, not just in the face of suffering.

Compassion is effective whenever we’re making decisions that impact others, not just in the face of suffering. Compassion can also be directed towards the self (when you’re slammed with back to back meetings, do you stay late to get through your email or do you go home to your family?) or to others (when someone’s multitasking on their phone while you’re presenting, how do you let them know you need their attention while understanding their situation?).

Once we have a strong motivation for and can easily recognize when to use compassion, there are four simple steps to start your journey towards becoming a compassionate leader:

Step 1: Start with self-compassion

If you don’t understand your own needs and what you’re realistically capable of in any given moment, it’s difficult to act with compassion towards others. For example, let’s say that your coworker just stopped you in the hall to ask a question. They are visibly upset, and they are a member of your team. But, you’re running late to a meeting and to top it off, you badly need to use the restroom. Not having self-compassion would look like suppressing your needs and trying your best to stay and listen to what the other person has to say all the while thinking about where you need to go next. The likelihood that you’ll be present or helpful is probably low. At worst, you might even appear dismissive and hurtful to the other person as you rush to address their concerns. On the other hand, by invoking self-compassion, you can be realistic to what you’re able to give. You can let them know that you’d love to help them but you’re currently late for another meeting and need to use the restroom. You can ask them if they can wait until after the meeting so that you can be fully present. This approach honors what the other person needs while also being realistic to what’s achievable. When you do eventually talk, you’ll likely have more to offer the other person. Checking in with yourself and understanding what’s realistically possible is the first step to putting compassion into action because in the long run it benefits both you and the other person.

Step 2: Understand what’s going on for the other person within their broader context

The second step to putting compassion into action is to understand what’s going on for the other person in a holistic sense. This type of perspective taking is different from empathy. Using compassion doesn’t mean just understanding where someone else is coming from on a personal level, but also understanding the broader context that they are in. For example, my husband recently had eye surgery. For his follow-up appointment, he was prepared with a dozen or so questions and concerns that he had written up. As the nurse came in to check his eye pressure, he peppered the man with everything that was going for him. The nurse patiently listened, but his responses were largely dismissive. As my husband continued to talk, the nurse began to interrupt him to let him know there was nothing to worry about, which only aggravated my husband more. When the nurse left, I gave my husband some advice before the doctor came in. I told him to consider the larger context that the physician is in. Did he notice how many patients were in the waiting room? Physicians have very little time to see patients, and this often makes them stressed. When a visit goes too long, they are likely to get preoccupied with how to make the visit shorter. Could he be more concise about what he was experiencing? Could he prioritize and bucket his top concerns? Were all of his questions really important to ask right now? If he could be more concise, perhaps the physician would be more likely to hear him out and respond. When the physician came in and my husband used this approach, I could see relief from her side. She was present and responsive, and my husband felt comforted in having his top concerns addressed. She was also able to see the next patient on time. Having compassion for her and her situation resulted in better outcomes for everyone.

Step 3: Feel for the other person in a genuine way

As social animals, we are highly attuned to the expressions and needs of others. In fact, we are hardwired to pick up others’ feelings and emotions. People can easily tell when you don’t care or are not fully present. This is why in order to truly use compassion, we need to authentically feel for them. If you’re trying to help someone with an artificial sense of concern, the likelihood of your words or actions being received well is pretty low. But how do you genuinely care for someone at work, especially when you may not even like them? Thankfully, you don’t have to love or even like someone to be compassionate. There are many practices and tools for cultivating genuine caring and expanding our circle of concern. One of the most powerful methods is to remember a simple truth: just like us, the other person just wants to be happy and does not want to suffer. This perspective is the foundation for our common humanity. If we can remember that, despite the other person’s ignorance or perhaps destructive actions, they are simply trying to do their best to be happy and not suffer, we can at least connect with them on a shared human level.

Step 4: Take action to help others be successful and assess your impact

No matter how much you care, unless you actually speak or act, it’s difficult to help someone else. This step is context dependent, so there are no scripts or rules to follow. However, compassionate action rests on discernment and wisdom. Discernment is having the ability to understand what the person needs, either by asking or accurately assessing the situation. Wisdom is the ability to see reality as it is, devoid of projections or preexisting beliefs. Without discernment or wisdom, we may actually increase someone else’s suffering. For example, if someone were to tell you that they were receiving negative feedback from their manager, you might initially think it’s best to console them and diminish the manager’s claims. However, with wisdom, you may come to recognize that by soothing their ego (and perhaps avoiding conflict for yourself), you may actually increase their suffering in the long run. Without learning why they are getting this feedback, it’s likely that this person will continue to receive it. Instead, if you can use compassion to explore the feedback with them and be honest, you have the opportunity to help them. Regardless of your course of action, however, in order to ensure that what you’re saying or doing is helpful, it’s necessary to have discernment about what the other person is able to receive in that moment. It’s also important to assess the impact of your actions or advice by circling back with the person later. Sometimes people are not immediately grateful to hear constructive feedback, but in the long run, you can assess whether or not they were able to learn and improve.

Putting compassion into action isn’t easy. Remember, no one is born with the ability to lead with compassion. With these four steps, you can begin your journey and assess where you might need to do more work. Are you invoking self-compassion? Are you able to understand what someone needs within a broader context? Do you feel for them in a genuine way? Are you acting in alignment with what’s most helpful? Asking yourself these questions can go a long way in developing your capacity for compassionate leadership.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.com on November 30, 2018.